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Exciting political races that nobody is watching

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, September 13, 2004

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So you already have your eye on the upcoming contest for governor (Ballantine-Easley), senate (Burr-Bowles) and maybe even lieutenant governor (Perdue-Snyder), do you?

On election day, the voters will deliver us some surprises, just like they always do.

But I will bet you a dime that you are not watching the eight statewide races that will produce the closest and most exciting political races this fall in North Carolina.

These are the council of state races for the offices of Attorney General, Auditor, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Insurance, Commissioner of Labor, Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Treasurer.

In 2000, four of the winners of these races won with just 51 percent or less of the popular vote. This year it looks like there are going to be just as many "squeekers."

You would never know it. Newspapers and TV do not give these contests much coverage. It is a problem for the candidates. But it opens a door of opportunity for you. If you learn just a little bit about the candidates and the way the races are shaping up, your friends will think that you are a political expert.

Read on and I will get you started.

First, I will give you a "system" that will help you handicap the races as you watch them through the fall. Then we will look at the races that are likely to be the closest. Finally, we will take a quick look at the other races, ones where one candidate now seems to have the advantage.

My system is based on points that I give for three factors: gender, incumbency, and party strength at the top of the ticket.

I call the gender factor the "Beverly" effect. It gives a female candidate a two percentage point beginning handicap over a male candidate. This edge is based on the tendency of some North Carolina voters to vote for female candidate because women are still underrepresented in elective office. The Beverly designation comes from the victory of Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly Lake in 2000 over Henry Frye, the former chief justice. Explaining his close (two percentage points) defeat, Justice Frye said that even though Justice Lake is very much a man, many voters thought otherwise.

I give another two points to an incumbent running for re-election. I cannot remember when an incumbent council of state member lost in a general election. Generally, the longer he or she serves, the stronger an incumbent becomes. Voters remember the name from the last election. Some of the offices provide opportunities for service and publicity that, over time, register positively in the minds of North Carolinians.

Finally, the council of state races are affected by the strength of the candidates' parties' top races, the ones that draw informed and committed voters to the polls. I award two points based on the strength of both the presidential and the gubernatorial races. This year, if you believe current polls, you would give Republican council of state candidates two points based on the current strength of the Bush ticket. Then, you would cancel them by handicapping the Democratic candidates with two points based on Easley's current lead in the governor's race.

The close races this year will certainly include the race between incumbent Democrat Britt Cobb and his Republican challenger, Steve Troxler. Ordinarily, Cobb's incumbency would give him the advantage. But Cobb is an appointee. Though he has generated good public attention for his work, he has never run for statewide office. On the other hand, Troxler ran a close race for the same office in 2000, winning 49 percent of the vote against Meg Scott Phipps.

Republican Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry has the advantages of incumbency and the "Beverly" factor. But in 2000 she won by less than a percentage point. She faces an aggressive campaign from Representative Wayne Goodwin.

Democratic Auditor Ralph Campbell faces a rematch from Leslie Merritt, who came within two percentage points of beating him in 2000. Campbell's incumbency advantage was complicated, in 2000 and again this year, by his unfavorable audit reports on Democratic office holders. He gained praise from many Republicans for his "even handedness." But quiet resentment among some Democrats could be a problem.

In the open seat for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Democrat June Atkinson has the "Beverly" advantage, but she faces a strong challenge from Bill Fletcher.

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, Treasurer Richard Moore, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long have strong incumbency advantages over their opponents (Joe Knott, Edward Meyer, Jay Rao, and Robert Brawley). These incumbents have used their offices and effective service to gain widespread recognition that will be difficult for the challengers to match.

Two things are certain.

First, you now know enough about the council of state races to hold you own with your political friends.

The other? On election day, the voters will deliver us some surprises, just like they always do.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (September 12) guest is Bill Thompson, author of "Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs."

Programs coming up:

September 19: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

September 26: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

October 3: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

October 10: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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